Notwithstanding that besan ka cheelas(cross between a crepe and pancake) are delicious enough by themselves, the curry that you make out of them takes the dish to another level
By Shalini Kala
The primary use of besan(chickpea flour) in our house was for kadhi and pakodas (fritters) of all kinds. We could never get enough of the latter; mum used to make all kinds – potato, onion, brinjal, spinach, and more. As a teenager, the other use I made of besan was to use it as a face packto achieve that “yellow-bulb” look, especially for wedding parties – typical juvenile behavior in the last century! I don’t know if youngsters are continuing with that or other such futile and embarrassing behaviour; N is more convinced about exotic sounding lotions and all sorts of face washes, the varieties of which, have me in a continuous confused loop.
Back when I still had better mental balance and clarity reigned over confusion, I discovered the varied and delicious usesof besan in cuisine from Maharashtra – I had started to travel there often for work. This was a time when apart from Punjabi food and dosa-idly-vada, there wasn’t really anything available in Delhi or food from other parts of the country.
You could enjoy a Gujarati, Malayali, Bengali or Goan meal only if you had friends from those States – oh how we waited for every Christmas to get guava cheese from Mrs. Gomes,made frequent visits at meal times to the Chatterjee household hoping we’d be invited for a bite, and bribed Twinkling from Meghalaya with alu-parathas for a morsel of smoked pork!
DilliHaat opened in the mid-1990s. In its early days, as luck would have it, it was only the Maharashtra food stall that was fully operational and offered an authentic though limited variety of dishes. On several occasions when I would drag my Delhi friends for a meal there, I brilliantly pretended to be an expert on that cuisine extolling the rustic flavours of zunkabhakri, pithla, thalipeeth and the rest – it helped that these guys knew nothing much beyond paneer tikka and butter chicken!
Soon, in a few years, the dhokla became a huge hit and is now available everywhere and anywhere in Delhi.Though what goes around as dhokla – the yellow sponge cube – is actually ‘khaman’ dhokla as any Gujarati will tell you with exasperation.
Over the years, I got exposed to many besan-based dishes from the kala chana growing, dry areas of the country – mainly Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. These remained severely out of the reach of my limited cooking skills and were mainly consumed in restaurants outside of Delhi, except DilliHaat of course.
Towards the end of the decade of 1990s, I found myself married – I accept it was entirely of my doing, no one else is to blame, though my mum-in-law thinks otherwise and wears the crown for ensuring her son’s marriage – into a Haryana household situated at the border of Rajasthan.
This too is a kala chana growing area that has been traditionally dry with limited fresh vegetables and fruits. This changed somewhat starting early ’80s as a result of heavy public investment in irrigation that allows for production of many more vegetables for a large part of the year. However, the traditional dishes still carry the flavor of the dryness of this region and are also heavily focused on milk and milk products – “Haryana, doodhdahi ka khana” is the government’s favourite quip seen widely displayed in the largest letters possible on bill boards and posters in the State!! The use of tomatoesis limited, while sour curd is used frequently to make all kinds of curries.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t known of besan cheela, but we had never made them at my mum’s house and my knowledge of it was at best limited. S, on the other hand couldn’t stop singing paeans in honour of the CHEELA – unfortunately for him, all this explicit encouragement didn’t lead me anywhere near the kitchen to whip them up.
Soon there appeared the besan ke cheele ki sabzi and I was totally intrigued. When I was first exposed to it, I thought how the hell would one save cheelas for a curry dish if they are so delicious, as S would vociferously contend. Wouldn’t they get over even before you said curry?
And secondly, why do more with something so good already?I promise you, it couldn’t have been done without the formidable presence of my mum-in-law who was cooking – cheelas were petrified to their spot, nobody, not even S dare pinch them! Later, when I tasted the curry, I got the answers to the two questions I posed earlier – this curry takes cheela to another level. Needless to report that it is a family favourite now and is a regular on our menu. Mum-in-law is as smug as a you know who….
For Besan cheelas
4 tablespoons besan
half teaspoon salt
pinch of cumin seeds
Chopped fresh coriander leaves
Finely chopped green chillies (optional)
1 cup or thereabouts of water
Mix besan, salt and cumin seeds. Add water and mix. Make the batter of thin pouring consistency, slightly thicker than that for crepes and thinner than that for pancakes. Add chopped coriander and green chillies, if you are using, to this batter.
Rest the batter for about half an hour. Heat a non-stick pan on medium high. Once it is hot – not warm, pour batter to make cheelas of any size of your convenience. Cook on low heat. Pour a few drops of oil around the cheela, once browned flip over and cook the other side adjusting heat as needed. Make all the cheelas and keep aside.
300-400 gms of curd
2 tea spoons oil
A pinch of asafoetida
1 teapoon of carom (Ajwain) seeds
Half tea spoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
salt and red chilli powder to taste
Half cup water
Once cool, break cheelas roughly into half inch by one inch pieces. Whisk curd nicely, add a little water to make it pouring consistency. In a thick-bottom flat pan/pateela, heat oil. Add asafoetida and carom seeds. As they splutter, add water. Add salt, turmeric, coriander and red chilli powder (to taste). As this comes to a boil add 2/3rd of the cheela pieces and mix.
As the curry comes to a boil, keeping heat on medium high, and start pouring the curd mix one table spoon at a time, stirring continuously and vigorously. As the curry comes to a boil add the next table spoon of curd in the same way. This will help avoid curdling (what fun – trying to not curdle the curd!!!).
Continue till all the curd is mixed well in the pan and the curry comes to a boil. Add remaining cheela pieces. Take off the heat. Cover. Serve after 15 minutes or more. Cheela pieces would have soaked the thin curd curry. Enjoy on cool evenings; it is light and soupy, very refreshing.
P.S: The cheela sabzi in the accompanying picture doesn’t have chopped coriander, but I recommend using it strongly for an enhanced flavour
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Shalini learnt to enjoy cooking at a mature age by which time she had gained many other experiences particularly through her work in agriculture and rural development. Her writing is an attempt to mix lessons from her cooking experiments with those from life in general.